When an audience settles in for a performance or a presentation — be it a theatrical production, a musical concert or a corporate event — the creatives playing to or speaking with the crowd can make their performances seem almost effortless, even if they’re sweating bullets beneath their cool, calm exteriors.
The reality, of course, is that most any performance is hard work and a group effort, with support from a sizable crew. But an issue in recent years, however, has been getting enough mid-level technical help to handle the video, the audio and the lighting duties, as well as other tasks that are key to any presentation.
That issue was the genesis for a new partnership between Howard Community College (HCC) and Carroll Community College (CCC) that received a boost in the form of a three-year, $427,583 joint award from the Arlington, Va.-based National Science Foundation (NSF) to establish the Advanced Technical Entertainment (ATE) program. It’s billed as the only public associate degree program for multimedia and presentation technology in the mid-Atlantic, and is set up to train workers who are in high demand for every type of performance, from theatrical productions and musical concerts to church services and corporate events. The program will begin this fall.
“Everywhere we look around the entertainment industry,” said Bill Gillett, chair of theater and dance at HCC, “we’re finding that it’s hard to get [potential students] to understand that becoming a technician is a viable career path.”
Gillett’s interest in founding the program was heightened after a visit to Lone Star Community College, in The Woodlands, Texas (near Houston). That’s where a colleague, Chase Waites, “went down this path before we did,” he said.
Lone Star calls its version of the major Live Entertainment Technology. “I recall an occasion when [former President Barack] Obama discussed the value of middle skill jobs, and that program supports that sector,” he said.
As it happened, the idea for the local partnership for ATE started when Gillett, who had been chair of performing arts at CCC, left for his current position at HCC just before the form for the NSF grant was submitted. The grant is turning out to be extra support, as the two local schools could have founded ATE anyway. “What the grant will do,” he said, “is make our program truly stellar by helping us fund equipment and staffing.”
NSF’s interest is in students gaining what it terms “advanced technical education. It’s specifically geared toward two-year schools that are training techs in a various fields,” said Gillett, including in various sciences, as well as entertainment.
“But the program isn’t to train the scientists,” he said. “It’s for the folks who run the equipment to support them.”
It’s hard to estimate what the technicians can make in the field, but the average salary “is about $41,000,” Gillett said, “though there is a range. It only takes two semesters to get a certificate. Our students will be able to take some of these courses and start working. Know that not everyone wants a four-year degree.”
Seth Schwartz, director of production and theater management at CCC, said “a combination of things” spurred the college’s partnership with HCC.
“I was at a Production Management Forum [an affinity group in the theater production business] meeting two years ago, and the big problem had become finding trained personnel,” he said. “Then Bill [Gillett] was at a conference where he found out that Lone Star had gotten a grant for their program from NSF.”
Schwartz reiterated that the two local community colleges were going to start the ATE program anyway, “but we applied for the grant in October 2015 and won the award this past January.”
Another bonus is that some students already have some experience through volunteering. “Some young people are already working on the soundboard at their churches on Sundays, for instance, but we’re trying to get the point across to them that they can make a career out of this, or in video, lighting and even carpentry.
“No matter whether the audience is big or small,” said Schwartz, “it has to be able to see and hear the performance.”
As of today, HCC has been approved to offer the applied arts and science degree or a certificate by the Maryland Higher Education Commission, while CCC is still waiting on certificate approval. However, several classes at CCC are underway.
Corby Hovis, program director for the NSF, said the Foundation’s program that funded the ATE project is called Advanced Technological Education and, as Gillett noted, “is aimed at virtually any kind of technologies,” including agricultural, bioscience, chemical, advanced manufacturing, cybersecurity and multi-media disciplines.
“The idea of the program is to boost sectors in the high tech area,” said Hovis. “It focuses on middle-skill jobs that require more than high school diploma, but less than four-year degree.
“That’s the context of the program, which is directed toward a profession that’s really upscaling and requires multiple skill sets,” he said, noting that it encompasses “electrical theory acoustics, audio engineering, computer and Internet technology, and optics [lighting], which need integration. It’s a heavy dose of computers, intelligent systems and connected systems.”
The motivation behind the ATE program, at its core, is the need for versatile employees.
“Today, you need to know much more than just how to work the soundboard or another single discipline,” Hovis said. “You can see this has happened in a number of fields since the Internet has advanced electronics into areas that were not part of the economy 15-to-20 years ago.”
And now the two colleges “can work collaboratively on something that would have been too expensive to work on individually,” he said, “due to cost of equipment and faculty resources.”
That point is key, said Schwartz.
“We met with NSF and found that we could offer the same classes at CCC and HCC,” he said. “So, if we have low enrollment at one school, students can take the course at the other, while we share equipment and get more opportunities to collaborate.”
Daniel Mori, theater production supervisor at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre
at Montgomery Community College, is on the advisory board for the theater programs at both colleges and offered another take on today’s market.
“The hole that we see is that, at two- and four-year schools, faculty are taught to train budding actors and designers,” Mori said. “So, you’ll see designers who come up with great organic lighting designs, for instance, but they don’t understand why the 17 lights can’t be plugged into three outlets. So, their practical implementation is on the art, not the science.”
What programs like ATE and a similar program that was recently established at Virginia Commonwealth University, in Richmond, Va., do is “facilitate the implementation of the creative vision, but in a market where there is a desperate need for these types of workers,” said Mori, “not only in Central Maryland, but in the very active D.C. market.”
While the program’s aim is to train a technical crew for the Baltimore-Washington region, there is also the element of acquiring soft skills, Mori said, like handling a crisis and “interacting in a professional manner” with other crew members and talent.
Also know, he added, that the D.C. market is unique, “in that we have a large amount of producing houses that create content, as well as the traveling shows that come through venues” like The National Theatre or the Kennedy Center [in D.C.], and Baltimore Center Stage and The Modell Performing Arts Center at The Lyric, in Baltimore. “The techs need to interact well with the touring shows, too.”
On that note, Rick Noble, director of production with Baltimore Center Stage, commented that some students from CCC soon will be coming to tour the theater and meet members of the production staff, noting that the venue is one of about 20 local businesses and organizations to offer students training opportunities that may lead to employment.
Noble also finds that not only are many theaters struggling to find mid-level technical talent, “but that issue is felt on the national level as well.”
And while students can opt for a more à la carte approach, the opportunity to get a full plate of experiences and make contacts is what the ATE program is all about.
“It’s the old adage about certain types of engineers being very good at what they do, but not as much with a variety of people,” said Schwartz. “When you’re working on a musical tour, for instance, you are working with a diverse group, and you need to operate with a reasonable amount of tact and a sense of humor.”
That combination can help a newly-trained tech “go a long way” in the business, he said.